A Little Planning Can Lead to
a Yard Full of Birds in Summer
by Sheryl DeVore
Pam Karlson lives in
Chicago, about a half block north of the Kennedy Expressway with an O’Hare
runway approach so close that planes fly directly over her house. Despite what
may sound like an unfriendly place for birds, Karlson looks forward every June
to seeing American robins feed serviceberry fruits to their young and
ruby-throated hummingbirds sip nectar from penstemon blooms. In June, she also
sees gray catbirds taking a dip in a small pond and house wren males enticing
females to choose one of the nests he’s started to build.
Her garden attracts birds
because she provides what they need. “It goes to the basics—food shelter and
water,” explains Karlson, whose bird-friendly garden is featured in Douglas W.
Tallamy’s new book, Nature’s
Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard. Karlson’s garden is
mentioned in a section called “The Power of Urban Lots.”
Karlson has documented
more than 100 species of birds in her 50-foot-wide-by-100-foot-long space
filled with more than 200 species of plants. A watercolor painter and graphic
designer, she has given presentations to the Chicago Botanic Garden, Wild Ones
and at various conferences on creating a bird oasis in the backyard. She’s also
a Chicago Botanic Garden certified garden designer, and says anyone can create
a bird-friendly garden with some research and trial and error.
Karlson planted what she
calls her first bird tree in 1995—a hawthorn. “Our yard is small, but there are
tall trees around us,” she says, acknowledging that fact also helps bring in
the birds. “I wanted a medium-sized tree that would help birds. Once I put that
in, my gardening focus started changing from just planting for beauty to
planting what’s beautiful that also helps birds and pollinators. I did this all
on my own. I’m learning all the time.”
shares, “I converted the backyard slowly over the years. I probably got really
focused on birds when I started doing bird rescue 16 years ago.” She volunteers
with Chicago Collision Monitors and Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, both
of which gather birds that have hit windows in Chicago and bring them to
In her garden, Karlson
uses native plants which attract insects and produce berries and seeds that
birds eat. “You need to use different plants that bloom at different times of
the year and at different heights. Bird diets are so diverse,” she says. “Do
not use any pesticides, because insects are a part of birds’ diets. Insects are
our friends. If you have a balanced ecosystem, you won’t be inundated by
insects, since many
become food for birds and other insects.”
Adams, author of Gardening for the Birds: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard,
agrees. He writes that bird-friendly gardens also attract important native
organisms that can barely be seen, as well as butterflies, moths and dragonflies.
“Even if you only have a small place for planting, choosing plants that are
beneficial to birds will add to the overall availability of habitat for our
local bird populations,” he writes.
mostly grows perennials—plants that come up each spring. But she also plants
some annuals such as black and blue salvia, native to tropical regions. “I put
them in pots to provide extra nectar for the hummingbirds,” she says. Another
Illinois native plant that birds favor is serviceberry, with fruits that ripen
in June. “Robins love them,” she says. “So do cedar waxwings.”
waxwings also visit a stream she installed with a small pond about 15 years
ago. The water features add to the diversity of birds she sees in June,
including yellow warblers, which love water, as well as gray catbirds. Both
species nest in the region. “Water is a big component,” Karlson says,
especially running water. Gardeners can also purchase items to create that
sound; for example, a bubbler can be placed in a bird bath.
summer, there’s so much bird activity. Most of the nesting is going on in the
yards around us, and I think the birds use our yard for food,” Karlson says. A
pair of robins found a neighbor’s downspout a perfect place to build a nest and
raise young. “It’s been going on and off for about 10 years now,” she notes.
“It’s really cool when they build the nest. They grab their nesting material
from our yard. I’ve watched them grab mud from the side of the pond and
also puts up house wren boxes. Male house wrens start building a nest in all of
them and show them off to the female, which selects her favorite to start a
family. “When June rolls around, the house wrens are paired up,” Karlson says.
“Last year, I was able to see the babies hanging out in the garden being fed by
the parents for at least a week.” She’s also had young chickadees and northern
cardinals in her yard.
also feeds birds sunflower, safflower, thistle and suet year-round using
different types of feeders. In May, she puts grape jelly and oranges out for
Baltimore orioles. By mid- to late June, the orioles don’t come to the feeders,
but she knows they’re nesting in the area and have switched to an insect diet
while raising young.
Karlson hopes others will
join in her crusade to create bird-friendly yards. “I’m a one-woman show. A
regular person can do this with their own sweat,” she says. “It’s a joy to
watch the birds in your yard in summer.” Especially during the stay-at-home
order during the COVID-19 pandemic, she says watching birds in her yard helps
relieve stress. “I’m so grateful for putting in all that effort into creating a
habitat for birds, and the payoff during this isolation has been phenomenal.”
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on
science, health and nature. She also writes nature, health and environment
stories for national and regional publications.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a free book, Landscaping for Wildlife, online at
for the Birds, by
in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds, by Mariette Nowak.
Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by
Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, by